Fault Lines Debate: If You Want Cops in Schools, They Get to Have Tasers
August 15, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Ed. Note: In light of issues raised by the use of Tasers in schools, and the potential for far more severe harm when used on children, we charged Fault Lines contributors David Meyer Lindenberg and Chris Seaton to debate the issue: Are Tasers in the hands of School Resource Officers a disaster waiting to happen? This is David’s argument:
America’s made a judgment call. It decided it wants cops in schools.
There are plenty of reasons to be critical of that plan. School cops, or SROs, are expensive and less than effective at making schools safe. And they make arrests, introduce children to the criminal justice system and ruin their lives over conduct that in a saner age warranted a trip to the principal’s office at best.
Given all these good reasons, why would we want to make a bad situation worse by deliberately sabotaging the project, taking away the tools that give SROs a shot at doing their job right? Stripping school cops of their Tasers will do nothing to stop misconduct — cops are capable of considerable ingenuity when it comes to finding ways to punish people for disrespecting their authoritah – while guaranteeing they’ll be less effective in the rare situations where we want them on hand.
People who think a police force is a good idea, but wring their hands over the pain of a cop-inflicted tasing, don’t seem to get what a cop’s job is. Subduing people who break the rules, by force if necessary, is the whole point. By importing cops to schools, we’ve made a Faustian bargain: schools with police officers in their midst are spending money and sanctioning the use of force on students in exchange for security, the promise that cops will intervene to keep students from breaking the law and doing harm to themselves or others.
Since this is so, the smart thing to do is minimize the downside. By helping cops to provide the security we ask of them while reducing the risks involved as far as possible, we can make the best of a bad situation. And that’s why we want SROs to carry Tasers: because they’re smart, useful tools that improve the likelihood of a positive outcome for both the cop and the person he’s arresting.
In general, less-lethal weapons are good alternatives to fists or a bullet. And several federally-funded studies on use of force during arrests have shown that Tasers in particular are linked to low rates of injury for everyone involved. Compared to pepper spray and rubber bullets, Tasers are a pretty safe and reliable way to take dangerous people out of commission.
So perversely, because we know school cops are going to be placing kids under arrest, we want them to have Tasers so it can be as safe as possible. Using force on a child is never a good idea, and Tasers are no exception. But when the alternative is throwing them through the classroom like a piece of chalk or crushing their skulls into the concrete, Tasers start to look pretty attractive. Getting shocked sucks. Traumatic brain injuries suck much worse. Take Tasers away and there will be more stories like Josh Kehm’s or Ben Fields’.
And for an idea of how much harder it’d be for cops to respond to real threats without Tasers, we can look at Europe. German cops don’t get Tasers, but they sometimes have to bring violent mentally ill people to the hospital. When the mental patients have knives, there’s usually no good option: if the cops don’t want to just let them go, they either have to run the risk of getting stabbed or use tear gas, which is at least as dangerous as a tasing and far less reliable.
Let’s assume we take SROs’ Tasers away and a mentally ill student brings a knife to school. What happens then? Is it right to needlessly endanger the kid, the officer who has to subdue him and the student body, all because the optics of using a Taser don’t sit right with the Huffington Post’s readership?
Let’s be clear. Nobody likes the idea of violently arresting kids to make them behave. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t allow it. But if, having made that observation, we turn off our brains and proceed to condemn the school cop phenomenon and Taser use in the same breath, we’re no better than the HuffPo.
Don’t like SROs? Fine. But if you believe in police reform, don’t waste your time on Tasers. Without them, things would be even worse.
Rebuttal: I think Chris is guilty of the same sin as the Huffington Post, conflating the fact that school cops suck with the question of whether Tasers do.
He’s right when he points out that kids are at heightened risk from a tasing, but that’s because kids, like the elderly, are at heightened risk from, well, everything. Like I said: “Using force on a child is never a good idea.” And that includes body slams.
The way I see it, school cops can only arrest kids with one thing at a time. So it’s a bad idea to take away the one tool that a) is least likely to badly hurt them and b) keeps the cop safe, which in addition to being a good thing in and of itself means he’s got an incentive to use it. And Chris doesn’t address the question of what to do in a real emergency.